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SABR Rattling
2004-02-09 12:27
by Mike Carminati

This weekend I attended the annual meeting for the New York regional chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (the Casey Stengel chapter) with my friend Murray. Although I have been in SABR for eleven or twelve years, it was my time attending a SABR event; Murray is a veteran of many a New York regional meeting.

The first thing that I found odd was that the funkadelified Gershwin hotel, where the event was held, on 27th Street near Madison Square Park, the original site of Madison Square Garden, four or five iterations ago. Not that anyone else would find this interesting, but I used to work in the building directly across the alley-like 27th St a couple of years ago. It was at an eCommerce company before the bubble burst, back when the Flat Iron district of New York was dubbed Silicon Alley (and even bore a sign with the embarrassing moniker, as Murray reminded me, though neither of us thinks it's still there now). It's an odd area of New York, where third-world street vendors, who Guliani never bothered to clear out, are juxtaposed (within a block or two) next to yuppified gentrification of bars, restaurants, and overpriced housing. Anyway, I used the back entrance to my building to walk northerly to Penn Station and would exit facing the Gershwin and it's faux papier-mache flames surrounding the outside lights and befuddled foreign tourists guarding the entrance, and I always wondered what it looked like inside. So I got to find out. (Also, I was watching the first season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on DVD on Sunday and noticed that the hotel that appears in the HBO special that spawned the series was the Millennium Hotel on 44th that I used as the short cut to my pizza place on 43rd when I worked in Times Square. It's the hotel in the scene in which Larry's manager tries to get HBO to pay for his $270+ X-rated movie bill, much to Larry's chagrin.)

Anyway, enough of hotels: I have to say before I inevitably start running down the meeting that everyone was very nice and extremely exuberant about the game in general and the meeting itself. It had that endearingly personalized charm that tells you that the organizers truly care about the event. The main organizer mentioned that many SABR members, some of which did not even attend, sent in checks to cover the cost of the event and to allow members who were without the means to attend. That's just a very nice, thoughtful thing for them to do. That compensated for the cramped accommodations, the not-too-appetizing spread, the noise and fumes of construction seemingly in the next room of the hotel, and the technical glitches (the final presenter, a preview of a documentary on Cooperstown, had to be canceled because her DVD wouldn't play, but no one knew how to debug the problem, let alone even open Task Manager, and there was no backup media, all of which is odd given that baseball research, which is in the title of SABR, tends to involve computers in some way, shape, or form).

Also, the guest speaker, Tom Keegan of ESPN, had some good stories about Ernie Harwell, Denny McLain, Pete Rose, and others. He was affable, seemed happy to be there, and took many questions even if some were, well, I'll get to them later. Octogenarian Tom Knight, the professor emeritus of the chapter, who sort of emceed the event had some funny stories until he ran out of steam, understandably, about two-thirds of the way through the all-day meeting. Hearing Phil Lowry, the author of the glorious Green Cathedrals, speak was a pleasure. He discussed his research on games that either ended the latest or lasted the longest, a topic that I initially thought would be dry, but that he presented with interesting angles on each game. One presenter played some highly entertaining, old recordings of Bill Stern, the once extremely popular radio broadcaster, who would relay quasi-factual stories in the most outlandish and definitely apocryphal ways. One story claimed that the National League was formed to prevent a group of convicted criminals from playing baseball. Another claimed that Harvard Eddie Grant (as opposed to the Electric Avenue one), the only major-leaguer to die in World War I, threw himself on a hand grenade to save a young major named Harry S. Truman. Great stuff. There was also a presentation on Tug McGraw, which the presenter began by slapping a mitt on his thigh a la Mssr. McGraw. Being a Phils fan though I noticed that the team for which McGraw played as long as the Mets didn't merit a mention. I turned to Murray and said that it was the Ken Burns documentary version of Tug's career (meaning that it was completely NY-based), but I guess in fairness the meeting was in the Big Apple and the presenter was cut off about halfway through. All of the other presenters seemed excited to participate, which made up for sometimes less than intoxicating presentations.

One thing that I did find troubling was the level of the discourse. Old saws that would shame a Baseball Primer poster were dusted off and presented as new ideas, squeezed into pointed questions that constituted speechifying sans soap box rather than a true exchange of ideas. Opinions concerning the non-issue of Janet Jackson's apparel choices were repeatedly expressed. Keegan said that the media's desire to grab the 18-25 demographic was dumbing down the coverage, a view that I agree with (not that I necessarily have a problem with it as long as I can deride it), but odd coming from a man working for the network (or at least the radio division of the network) that brought you the execrable "Pardon the Interruption" and "Rome Is Burning." Then he started to comment on the Super Bowl's choice of Kid Rock, saying that he listened to Bob Dylan on the way over to the hotel (huh?). I don't know why anyone at the meeting would bother commenting on an inferior sport that caters to the basest emotions at all times. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but why be surprised by the crappy, allegedly indecent halftime show? Someone else said that the Super Bowl brouhaha or bra-ha-ha displayed the good PR that baseball enjoys as opposed to football (Huh? On what planet?) One woman went on a tirade-cum-question about how Mike Ditka's Levitra™ commercials somehow led up to the Super Bowl halftime show. Keegan had difficulty responding or even finding a question in her rantings and ended up defending men with certain medical shortcomings.

Other comments that literally had me squirming in my seat were the ridiculousness of pitch counts, Greg Maddux's wussiness in pitching only "5 or 6 innings" a start in comparison to Warren Spahn's ability to complete games, and the necessity to add an asterisk to any recent home run records due to alleged steroid use (Keegan agreed with the epithet "juice monkeys" for today's players, a comment that had our mouths agape and eyebrows raised to our hairlines).

Pete Rose was referenced repeatedly and one brazen questioner even asked Keegan if Rose's reinstatement (which will probably never be extended) would open the door for Shoeless Joe's revivification, at least in the baseball universe. This was a question that had me shaking my head and Murray and I almost heckling the audience member. Not only are Jackson and Rose barred from the game for different reasons with different evidence, unlike Rose, Jackson had been eligible to the Hall vote for many years and had even received votes but was found wanting by the writers and veterans alike. Does anyone remember that Jackson too denied the story?

One of the few good questions was from Murray when he asked Keegan what websites he reads. The response explained a good bit about the media being dumbed down. He cited a great "new" site, Retrosheet, a great site to reference but it seemed like dilettante interest rather than a true commitment to the site. Anyway, the other sites he reportedly read were all ESPN writers without even a Rob Neyer in the mix. It's no wonder that the blogs and independent websites have taken such a hold in baseball reportage in the last few years. The members of the media just sit around reading what the guy in the next office said about so-and-so. When most reporting is handled by the reportedly five major conglomerates that own almost all newspaper, TV, and internet reporting, who would be surprised if they are more concerned about keeping up with the Joneses rather than coming up with something thought-provoking and original.

At the end Murray summed up the inherent problem in SABR well. He said, that it stems from the tension between "rigorous, research-intensive SABR" and the one peopled with "diehard fan types who know more than average but who wouldn't know a run created from a rundown". My explanation was simply that there were too many Met fans—to paraphrase Eddie Murphy, I kid the Met fans because they Met fans.

Anyway, I come to praise not bury the SABR meeting, though that may be hard to tell. I would go again, but next time I would be a little bit wiser as to what to expect. Well, who knows after this, they may not want me back.

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